I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.
Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me. From Marc Szarkowski:
Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.
I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.
It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.
But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler.
I love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars – be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us – walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike – are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.
And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities – the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school – are within walking distance. But – and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism – not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity – opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."
For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town – a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.
As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.
So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.
(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)
*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults. However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time. Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking. Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time, not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight.